“You Have a Question? I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.
Q: Hi Ricki!
I know I haven’t been participating much in the online writer group, and this is honestly because I feel completely out of my depth. I never worked on newspaper staff, I didn’t major in English, I don’t work in journalism—I took one creative writing class in college and loved it, but that’s about the extent of my training.
I want to break into the writing world, but I really don’t have a clue where to start. Do you have any suggestions for starting points? I don’t just mean for writing a novel; I’m also interested in freelance or nonfiction writing.
A: Thanks for the question!
First of all, none of this talk about how you didn’t major in English and blah blah blah. That doesn’t matter! I’ve been hearing a lot lately, and it’s a little disturbing to me.
What matters is you are into writing now and you want to learn the things you don’t know—and that is AWESOME.
I did major in English, but I didn’t always enjoy everything in my program of study. Nothing against my alma mater—John Carroll University has a great program—but my interests always lay in writing, and I did not get to do enough of it.
Thinking back, it was probably my fault. I was good at all the analysis and everything, but it wasn’t until I immersed myself in all this that I learned most of what I know today. Teaching helped with that a lot—and quitting teaching helped with it even more!
The point is, you’re driven. And that hunger to learn about writing will take you farther than if you were some Waiting-for-Godot-loving (I’m sorry—I hated reading that the 50 billion times I had to read it in college) English major. So don’t feel hopeless!
But I digress.
As far as getting started with it all, there are couple of things I would suggest.
1) Go to a writers’ conference. There’s nothing like meeting other writers, attending workshops, hearing established authors speak, and schmoozing with industry professionals to get your creative juices flowing! Although they can be pricey, the amount you can learn in one short weekend or a week-long writing retreat is totally worth it. In addition to learning about the business as well as the craft of writing, socializing with others and hearing multiple perspectives from writers at all levels can put you on the right path for your own writing future.
2) Read about writing. Immerse yourself in writing books, magazines, and blogs. In terms of your interest in freelancing, I have two book suggestions offhand: Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer and Writer’s Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing (edited by Michelle Ruberg). Both of these titles are chockfull of tips on how to generate ideas for articles, how to go about writing them, whom to query, etc.
3) Figure out what kinds of things you can write. Read magazines, newspapers, blogs—find your niche. Study the articles that are similar to what you’d like to be writing in the magazines for which you aspire to write. You’d be surprised at how the ideas will flow. If you want to try your hand at writing a novel or a nonfiction book, read several types of books until you find one that calls to you. And when you do? Read even more of that kind of book.
4.) Find your markets. But once you know what you want to write, you’ll need to check out a book like Writer’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books), which is a reference book published annually (you can also get a Web subscription to it) that lists and categorizes (by genre, region, type, etc.) where you can sell your work, what publications are specifically seeking, what they pay, and how to contact them.
5.) Learn to write an effective query letter. When you’re ready to pitch something, you need to query editors. You can find several great resources on how to write a query letter (since that’s a whole other animal to attack)—there’s actually a section in Writer’s Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing that discusses writing query letters.
6.) Actually do it. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at first. But if you’ve got that nagging feeling in your gut that says you have to write, get your be-hind in front of your laptop and start typing. Join a writing group—online or IRL—take a class, whatever. Just let those words out before your brain explodes.